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Success without splitter another marker for Kevin Gausman's progress in Orioles' win over Rays

Frustrating as Kevin Gausman’s struggle to turn his top-of-the-rotation stuff into top-of-the-rotation results might be, Saturday’s 11-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays might be the greatest piece of evidence yet that the Orioles’ former top draft pick has made tremendous strides in his major league career.

His split-fingered fastball has always been one of the most devastating pitches in baseball, and Gausman has relied on it in good times and bad since becoming a full-time major league starter in 2016. He didn’t have much success with the pitch Saturday, but went seven innings and allowed two runs on nine hits with a pair of walks and five strikeouts nonetheless.

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“I thought I had a pretty good feel for it, [but] against this lineup, I just felt like I needed to throw more fastballs up than splits,” Gausman said. “It’s all about finding what’s working that night.”

“I don’t think he’s carrying everything as far as command, just missing on some pitches, but he pitched through seven innings, two runs,” manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s good to see, those type of outings when he’s carrying not everything.

“You’ve just got to find a way to survive. Of course, when you’re carrying [that fastball], he reached back a couple times and went 97 when he really wanted to get a little bit. That’s a sign of maturity. Kevin knows more is not always better, and I’m hoping that as he evolves as a pitcher, that happens more and more.”

In total, Gausman threw 12 splitters, according to MLB’s Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com, though some of those were changeups that he went to after he couldn’t get strikes with the split.

The bottom of the Orioles batting order came alive on Saturday night, with the last three hitters in the order combining to drive in nine runs in a lopsided win over the Rays.

It was the fewest in the changeup-splitter family in a big league start since he threw six total on June 11, 2017 against the New York Yankees, according to BrooksBaseball.com. He walked six and allowed seven runs on eight hits that day, retiring only 10 batters.

Take any of the previous editions of Gausman — and to be sure, there have been plenty, good and not so good — without his splitter, and you’d be hard pressed to see him out there comfortably in the seventh inning.

At times, the swing-and-miss splitter is a crutch that helped him overcome spotty fastball command and a breaking ball he could never quite figure out.

In 2016, when he joined the rotation full-time, his breaking ball was a hybrid that sometimes looped like a curveball and sometimes bit like a slider. But it only really became an effective pitch last year when Gausman tweaked his delivery midseason to get himself more on line with the plate.

Even if opponents entered the day hitting .289 off it, that’s the lowest they’ve hit on Gausman’s breaking balls since 2015, when he was using a vertical curveball that played well off his four-seam fastball but he really got comfortable with it.

Yet against a lineup with five right-handed batters, Gausman’s slider was a weapon, as he struck out four of his five batters on the breaking ball. He left one over the plate for Kevin Kiermaier’s home run to lead off the third, and also had the Rays score a run in the second on a double by Jesús Sucre.

But they rarely threatened other than that, and Gausman was made to pitch a little more freely with his fastball by the fact that Trey Mancini and Joey Rickard homered to give him a lead in the second inning. The Orioles rapped out 15 hits and scored 11 runs.

“It kind of gives yourself a little room to breathe,” Gausman said. “It’s been kind of hard to come by here this year. But the last few games, we’ve been swinging the bat really well. When it’s going like that, you just try to be the one not to mess it up.”

Gausman improved to 5-8 with a 4.43 ERA as the Orioles rotation made its third straight quality start.

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